Skip to main content

I volunteered to be a driver for a feeding scheme organized by Muizenberg residents during the Corona Virus Lockdown. My main task is to take food, cooked and in bulk to Vrygrond, a nearby informal settlement. Vrygrond abuts the greater Muizenberg area. It is 1km from my house and one of the poorest communities in Cape Town.

Above photo: Kgara_Kevin Rack. From left to right: Chrislyn Linnett, Debrah Richards, Crystal Newman and Lansey Scott. 

Its day one and I am travelling with Kevin Khoisan (my nickname for him in my cell phone). He’s another volunteer from Muizenberg doing the driving. He’s been at it from the start of the lockdown and now quite deft at finding his way through the labyrinth of tiny abodes in the area. He was supposed to be in Nyae Nyae, Namibia with the San at this time he told me. “I was going to learn about tracking and medicinal plants with the San. Instead I am delivering food.” Kevin is also a trainee twasa (nyanga initiate). He is showing me the ropes and routes to different destinations. Our conversations continue through the maze of corrugated shacks. It is feeding time. We pass people waiting outside their homes, in close proximity on the street. Every face tells a story. All races of South Africans, and a variety of foreign Africans live here. It’s “a league of nations,” he remarks. Kids are playing soccer, adults sit outside their homes, some with plates and tupperware bowls at the ready. Everyone is in a state of suspended animation and watching. “Corona virus” shouts a young boy at our passing car. This is not the Spanish flu of 1918. Mass communication is part of our daily lives.

I think about my neighbor two houses down who took a chance and was arrested for walking his dog on our street. The policeman who apprehended him, asked him what he was doing. “My dog is walking me,” he replied. “That’s the wrong answer.” He remonstrated in vain. Mervin spent most of the day in Muizenberg’s police cells, then was fined R1000 and released. My wife witnessed the incident through the latticed fence of our house. She’s Dutch and grew up with a strong sense of civil liberties. She argued with the policeman that his actions were over-the-top. It was a futile cause. On the Whatsapp groups I am connected to, someone announced that a young girl was arrested for riding her skateboard in the street. A Whatsapp member benignly suggested the police actions may have been extreme. A barrage of self-righteousness ensued. “She’s breaking the rules”. “Lockdown is lockdown and you must pay the price if you break the law!”

Crossing over the tar road we are now on a dirt track, more shacks and tiny side roads. At the blue shack we turn right. We meet Auntie Fozia and a group called ‘Uber Feets’. “These are really tough women,” says Kevin. They distribute food in the area and ensure people are keeping their social distance so that they don’t fall foul of the police. We do the Corona elbow greet and in no time the car is offloaded of its contents. Helpers come from every corner. I am immediately aware of just how fragile the act of philanthropy is in this time. I wear my mask. It’s a signifier for the outside support group I’m with and a reassurance for myself that I am being ‘responsible’. I think about the thousands of health workers saving lives throughout the world and at risk.

Day 2. I team up with Injairu and Noleen. We have a drop off of food to deliver at the Community Centre in Vrygrond. Nolene is a ceramist on hold in lockdown time and has made available her time and her bakkie. Injairu is Kenyan and has lived in the country for 11 years. She recently completed her doctorate in alternative economies. “This is field work for you,” I venture. “Yes we really need to find ways that people can live sustainably.” As we cross the ‘divide’ between Muizenberg and Vrygrond she tells me she is also a musician, speaks isiXhosa, seSotho, Swahili and a few others. At the Centre we unpack our supplies. We meet Christina and her helpers. Amongst the group is Chrislyn. She has just joined. There was a facebook post about her. “I’ve lived most of my entire life in Vrygrond. Everyday I saw how my late mother Heather Anne Scott reached out with all her heart and helped the community. My passion for serving the community comes from her. I want to keep her legacy going…I am honoured to start this food kitchen.”

On the way out we see policemen alight from a vehicle and chase a group of youths who were walking on the street. They escape down a rabbit warren. I have flashbacks to the 1980’s when this was the norm of everyday existence as people resisted and fought against apartheid. It’s bizarre and surreal on a level. At any given point here there are thousands of people in a square kilometer breaking the social distance measures and lockdown. It’s called socio economic informal dwelling survival. People literally live on top of each other and there are often 6-10 living in a small shack. Will arresting these youths really make the difference between our survival out of the pandemic or not?

Day 3. I collect two 20 liter buckets of vegetable soup from Organic Zone who have joined the feeding effort. My wife has organized this and they will cook everyday while the need is there. I pick up another pot of stew cooked by a Muizenberg resident at the Bluebird Garage, the temporary HQ for the food security project. Local people trickle in to drop off supplies, and a team of dedicated volunteers are plotting and planning. Theresa is the co-ordinator and had much to do with setting this up. Behind the masks I recognize familiar faces from the hood and the Muizenberg Festival Committee. In the two weeks after lockdown she tells me that the committee had raised R100 000 for the scheme. But on a level it’s all about logistics, planning and meeting the demand. A queue of needy Muizenberg residents come to collect food parcels. This is the engine room. Compassion and humanitarian responses are at the heart of the project. The feeding stations have grown from 8 to 22 in two weeks.

Day 4. Today I am on my own. I cross the divide again – Prince George Avenue or the M5 as it is called. Had I turned left I would have driven through one of the most beautiful residential areas in Cape Town, Marina da Gama. Here gardens of immaculately designed houses gently cascade onto Zandvlei, the large wetland that is a key feature of Muizenberg area. Canoes, rowing boats and Stand Up Boards are sitting on grass verges. It is like a war zone. It is hard to believe there is life behind these walls. Instead I turn right into Vrygrond Avenue. I try to make contact with Avela and Asanda. Conversations break up on Whatsapp, I try their ordinary cell numbers. They don’t pick up. Comms are seemingly extremely difficult. I send a few SMSes. Finally I get through. We make a plan to meet at the Capricorn Primary School in 10 minutes. Up the road I pass a long queue of people lining up for food. A rasta flag has been hoisted. There is no social distancing. Small vendors are selling vegetables on street corners. People are hanging outside spaza shops and what were once operational taverns.

I meet Avela and Asanda at the school. We do the elbow thing. We talk through our masks. They direct me through a maze of small roads. It’s another food drop off. People wait and watch. We pass a group of young girls who are singing and dancing on a street corner. They are having fun in the time of Corona. We park the car. The food has to be distributed to three schemes today and divided equally. Food is decanted into pots. Vegetable soup mixed with meat stew. No-one is complaining. Our next destination takes us to a site at the back side of a municipal dump. I am struck at how poor the sanitation facilities are. I remember photographing mushrooming squatter areas in the 1980’s. Electricity pylons would bypass inhabitants below. I asked myself the question then. How can people live in such conditions? This is no time for memory lane meanderings – we’re on a mission. But really what’s changed in 35 years? I see so many houses and so few mobile toilets. Some have locks on them and some are open. I think about the email I received from a colleague today from down the road. She was very disturbed that a friend was fined for talking to his opposite neighbour. What really disturbed her the most was someone snitched and reported them to the police. These are different paradigms. The contradictions are extreme.

We are at our next destination. Delivering and decanting. Deep in this part of Vrygrond this little street is very busy. People bumping into each other to get past the car. A man approaches me and says he’s very grateful for what we are doing and that people in Muizenberg are thinking of us. “God bless. We really need this”. As I drive out again, there is another vehicle from a Muslim organization that has come to deliver food. I pass the feeding point where the rasta flag was flying.

Day 5. We are into a rhythm now and a fixed rendevouz at the school has been established – drop off at same time, same place, every day. I pass the same feeding outlet as yesterday on the Vrygrond Road. The queue is longer, the flag is gone. Avela has a new hairstyle. We head off in a different direction this time. We meet Auntie Merilyn. It’s only one delivery today. “I’ve lived here since 2006,” she says. “One day when I was walking to my house down this road, I heard a voice. It said, ‘Feed the Hunger, Feed the Hunger’.” With her child grants she put away R200 and began a feeding scheme to support her immediate community. Inside the small shack she shows me her old electric stove. “We need a gas stove to manage to cook with these big pots.” Outside people are collecting wood for a fire. I say I’ll convey the message back to Bluebird HQ. I ask if there is any support from the government or the municipality to help with the feeding schemes. “Not a thing!” she and Avela say in unison.

I drop off Avela. “We really need more food. People are really quite desperate.” I’ll take this back to HQ, I tell her. On the way out people are hanging out and the streets are full of activity. Some are smoking, others gather around their makeshift homes. This is feeding time again. Or is it? Is it not just a normal day in an informal settlement, where socio economic conditions and survival trump lockdown and social distancing precautions. As I drive out the queue is as long as it was when I came in. This is the ‘shithole Africa’ President Trump once called it. These are the people who got left behind in our democracy train. Dylan is a recycler from Vrygrond who collects recycled goods from our home. I pay him a weekly rate to do the work I am too lazy to do. It works for both of us. The other day he crossed the divide and asked for help. I gave him food and money. He came again yesterday to say he was fined R1000 for breaking the lockdown rules. His day in court is May 9. I give what I have in my wallet. He sped off on his bicycle. It hurts.

Day 6. Theresa’s call for a gas stove has come good. I pick up two and a number of gas bottles. Today Noleen and Kevin are helping because the load is too big. The day before we heard a woman was arrested by the police while feeding the community. Kevin and Noleen’s mission today is also as back up in case they arrest us too. We drop off at our destinations. We deliver the gas stove and bottles to Merilyn’s house. We visit the home where a person was arrested the day before to check the story. We meet Tauheira and her family whose church at home doubles as a cooking space. She speaks animatedly and is visibly upset. It was police provocation in our minds, heavy handed and an unlawful arrest. Her husband was also arrested and assaulted. The police have a different version. They show us the charges, “hindrance of a policeman in the course of his duties.”

Cyril Ramaphosa

Photo: Paul Weinberg

Later that day I watch President Cyril Ramaphosa on the news. He’s set aside R500 billion for economic and social upliftment. R50 billion for poverty relief. Even R350 a month for all those who have slipped through all the cracks. It sounds impressive. When and how will it filter down to the hungry community of Vrygrond and millions of others? Up to now, 4 weeks into the lockdown, the government has not been seen in Vrygrond to help the crisis. I am reminded of a photograph I took in the turbulent 1980’s. Cyril, then secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers was addressing a crowd under a large banner. It read, ‘Socialism means Freedom’. It was part of the all-pervasive political rhetoric of the time. And then came the 1994 moment. What happened? What did happen to all those lofty ideals inscribed in the Freedom Charter shouted with conviction from stages at countless political gathering during those anti-apartheid struggle days. “The people shall share in the wealth of the country”. Corona Virus is after all a time to reflect, rethink our priorities and retest our values.

Day 7. We drop off food again. Tauheira texts me that she has been dismissed from the feeding scheme she was part of. “How are we going to feed these starving people?” she asks. I say I’ll pass it on to the committee. I get another message that Yolanda, also part of the feeding group, was harassed by police and threatened for their claim she was selling cigarettes. I am no more a driver. I send this information to human rights groups and civil society activists. I am really depressed. Compassion and caring has become a crime. I head on to drop off food at the M5 feeding station. I meet their leader Isaac. He has dreads and complains that his taxi is in for repairs and now he is out of work. “I have an idea,” he shares with me, “I want to make a film that shows Africa as one nation.”

Food delivery to Vrygrond

Photo: Paul Weinberg

Day 8. We drop off the bulk weekly supplies at the Community Centre. My landrover has had many challenges in the bush in unnavigable terrains. It is groaning under the load. 22 representatives from the feeding stations and their help come with trolleys, wheelbarrows or hired taxis. A local human rights activist SMSes to say Tauhiera and Yolanda’s cases have gone to the South African Human Rights Commission.

Day 9. It’s Saturday. The Muizenberg food security group is having its weekly meeting. They keep their social distance, talk under their masks and gather in a circle. The big challenge on the agenda is how to be efficient with the limited funding. The food parcels packed for 120 families in Muizenberg cost R30 000 a week. The debate is whether to set up one big food kitchen where people can collect a daily meal or continue with the more expensive food parcels? Steve is a new addition to the committee. A former lawyer turned chef, who lived in Canada for 17 years. He returned two years ago to set up a business making food for various food outlets and restaurants. He was doing very well until the Covid 19 hit. His business and life like all of us is in limbo. He suggests ways the group could do this. We deliver hot food cooked by a group of women in Muizenberg. Out of one of the hovels emerges Priscilla. “I’m a char, I work in white people’s homes. I heard you have to apply for a grant through a website. I can’t, I don’t have airtime. I have run out of money.” Her mask can’t disguise her tears as they run down her face. “Please help, I am desperate.” Domestic workers will be the last to get back to work. Only when level 1 is reached in the Covid 19 planned integration with society, which is months off. We listen and do our best to offer ideas and support. The only consolation for the time being is that there is a feeding scheme in her street.

With us on our drop off rounds today is Nolu, the administrator of the organisation. She is visiting stations to check on their hygiene and ensure that there are proper records of the deliveries each week. She goes through her checklist with each station. “Ensure there is social distancing, please look after yourselves and don’t burn out, keep some food aside for yourself at the start of feeding, do you have enough masks?” Down a small path, we are shown where one of the shacks is now a feeding station. Dudu tells us this person is in jail and they are using it so that it does not get appropriated by gangsters. Along the way a group of men are doing some weight training. It is kind of surreal. Avela speaks to some children playing in the space between the rubbish dump and the informal houses. “Where do you live?” “Over there?” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I just want to build a nice big house.”

I return home. On the other side of Prince George Drive, lockdown is fully in place here. Muizenberg is deserted and quiet. What do I make of all of this and how do I process the days of driving food across the divide? People talk eloquently that ‘new normal’ will be about resetting the button and a chance to really deal with and address the glaring inequalities in our country and in the world. I listen and hope. Vrygrond is part of greater Muizenberg. In fact they are inseparable and part of its urban space. Vrygrond, according to the 2011 census, makes up about 18 000 of the 36 000 residents of Muizenberg. Some NGO’s now estimate it is 42 000. It is a little microcosm of South Africa. Many argue there are 30 million (55%) people who live below the poverty line and about 7 million (30%) who are unemployed in South Africa. This was before the Covid 19 Lockdown. Vrygrond and its residents are its living reality.

I read the finance minister Tito Mboweni is meditating on the issue of BIG, the basic income grant. Civil society activists have been campaigning for this for 25 years to alleviate poverty and inherent inequalities. The days roll on. Soon it will be May Day. No buoyant celebrations this year. Lockdown is in place. I begin to realise these journeys are not about deliveries of food but mostly an opportunity for me to understand and be reminded again about inequality and poverty. To see its face, close up, beyond the statistics and political rhetoric. But what has become abundantly clear for me is that you really can’t lock down poverty, not even with 72 000 troops at your disposal. I have also seen just how fast compassion can work. It crosses divides at high speed giving hope for people who wait for a better world and the reset button of the ‘new normal’. I am just as confused as the next person as we are bombarded with news and social media constantly, solutions and quick and long fixes, as we work our way through the pandemic. I spent 10 years working for a development NGO – their mantra was influenced by Maoism. Don’t give people a fish, rather give them a fishing rod to catch their own. The problem is that there aren’t enough fishing rods nor fish to go around. What seems to prevail instead, is what Bob Marley once sang, “A hungry man is an angry man”. For the time being I take solace that my job is relatively simple. I am just a volunteer driver for the amazing angels with masks who are doing so much with compassionate community support and limited resources to feed hungry people, in their communities and across the divide.

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg is a South African-born photographer, filmmaker, writer, curator, educationist and archivist. He began his career in the late 1970’s by working for South African NGOs, and photographing current events for news agencies and foreign countries. In 1993 Weinberg won the Mother Jones International Documentary Award for his portrayal of the fisherfolk of Kosi Bay, on South Africa’s north coast. He has taught photography at the Centre of Documentary Studies at Duke University, and Masters in Documentary Arts at UCT. He currently works as an independent curator, archivist and photographer.

Leave a Reply